One Last Craddock Story

Those familiar with Craddock’s stories may recall the one about Molly Shepherd, the Native American woman who, upon learning of the death of John F. Kennedy, wrote in her local newspaper column that day, “Molly has no words for you today. Molly has nothing to write today. Molly has no words today.” That’s something of how I feel upon learning of Fred Craddock’s death. Here is all that I can muster at the moment.

So many of the high points of my career involve Fred Craddock. I stumbled onto his classic 1971 book As One Without Authority while doing my doctoral work in preaching. It was like discovering Elvis Presley for the first time when all you had known before were old-fashioned crooners. Both of them shook up the world as we had known it, the latter with his gyrations and the former by suggesting sermons need not give away the ending too soon. In the ABCs of homiletical history, there was Augustine, Barth, and Craddock. I introduced him that way one time. Over the years I became something of a regular at introducing him here in Kansas City. He once joked that my next book should be called Craddock Introductions. Each time I tried to find something new to say, and to keep it short. When I put him alongside Augustine and Barth in terms of impact on homiletical theory, he naturally deferred. It seemed true to me.

When it came time to find a topic for my dissertation, Fred’s model of inductive preaching was the obvious choice. We had visited in person once during my studies when he lectured at the seminary. And so when I wrote about doing a phone interview for my dissertation, he graciously agreed, which I not so graciously screwed up because of the time zone difference. I still have the audio of that conversation, Fred chiding me, before we talked preaching.

Not too many years later he was in Kansas City, speaking at a conference hosted by Church of the Brethren. I would have registered for the conference but I was going to be out of town for all but the first night. In my attempts to talk my way in, I told the man on the phone I had done my dissertation on Craddock and that I would be bringing some students. He said it would be fine. That same man introduced Fred, noting that one of Fred’s doctoral students was also present. When he called my name, my eyes got big as saucers. I feared a public chiding this time. Instead, Fred graciously smiled and waved. I explained the misunderstanding afterwards and we both laughed. We would remember that incident many years later as well.

The highlight of my professional life, however, came when Fred agreed to have me and Richard Ward edit the collection called Craddock Stories. People have sometimes asked how that came about. It started when Richard and I were leading a workshop for preachers and Fred was in the hospital with a serious life-threatening illness. Several of the pastors had heard and inquired, which led to everyone sharing their favorite Craddock story. Hardly any of us finished telling whatever story had occurred to us because someone would interrupt before it was over. “Oh, yeah, I love that one. But what about the one where….” That’s when the idea hit. I wrote to him later, suggesting how it could be done. We agreed to talk about it the next time he was back in Kansas City. I still remember sitting at a red light on the way back to his hotel, when out of the blue he said, “Let’s do that book of stories.”

Believe it or not, there would be an even better moment as the book was coming to completion. I had listened to hundreds of sermon tapes, read every printed sermon I could get my hands on, and now we had the stories collected. The problem all along had been how they would be organized. On this particular visit to Cherry Log, Georgia, where Fred and Nettie had retired to, Richard and I sat on the back deck with him after dinner. Then came the oral examination. “So, Mike, how do you propose we arrange this collection?” I should add that he was never fond of the idea, not really. It seemed like way too much fuss over one preacher’s illustrations. That’s what he said. “Who would want to read a book like that?” I bounced several organizational ideas off of him that I knew wouldn’t work even as I suggested them. He agreed. I did recall a collection of Robert Frost’s poetry in which the first poem stood for the whole collection, with the remainder arranged at random. Before I could finish sharing that, I suddenly wondered if we might do something similar but with a twist. “What if the first and the last story stood for the whole thing?” He liked that idea, then added, “But which two stories?” He knew the answer already; that much was clear. I said, “The two that are about your dad.” Test passed.

We stayed in touch over the years, and not just when he was in Kansas City with me to introduce him. I did one presentation with him at Candler School of Theology, and what a treat that was. He and Nettie invited me to dinner that evening. That was when we learned we shared the same wedding anniversary date, June 9. In what turned out to be the last few months of his life I shared how we were expecting our first grandchild, and they talked about their first great grandchild. During the Christmas holidays and then again after the first of this year, I visited with Nettie on the phone, only to learn Fred was in the hospital again. I said that maybe it was better I checked with her first anyway. I had this idea for a book, a sequel to the collection of essays I had edited some years back, What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? Fred had contributed to that first collection, and now I was imagining a companion volume, What’s Right with Preaching Today? I knew Fred would appreciate the positive emphasis, and that his health would not allow him to participate. His Parkinson’s wreaked havoc in many frustrating ways, interfering even with his ability to read. So I said to Nettie, “What if I flew out, had a conversation with him about what’s right as he sees it, then wrote it up as a kind of introduction to the book?” She wasn’t sure, but said when the time was right, she would talk to him about it. She suggested I call back.

On the day Fred died, my wife surprised me with a dinner on the town, at which a dozen of our closest friends were there. My newest book, The Story of Narrative Preaching, had just been released. They were there to celebrate. When I had gone to Candler on my last sabbatical to work on the manuscript, I had driven up to Cherry Log to see Fred and go eat some BBQ at the Pink Pig. I told him how it was not only about narrative preaching, but was in the form of a narrative. He loved the idea. When I said I did too, but wondered if I should break that mold at the end and offer some concluding remarks as author, he chided once again. “No,” he said. “The thing about stories is that they either work or they don’t. Leave it at that.”

Fred’s stories, sermons, books, and lectures either worked or they didn’t. We know the answer to that one. Leave it at that.

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